on content warnings & courtesy

slippery_slope

XKCD 1332

Earlier this week I read a blog post about content warnings, and what the author refers to as the Content Police, and I saw some agreement with its arguments in the comments  (although obviously that’s something of a self-selecting sample.) The main thrust of the post is that content warnings for written fiction are insidious, infantalising and a mark of amateurism. I basically disagree with all of it, and I thought I might take a little time out to explain why.

It fundamentally comes down to two things, the principle of charity, and a CS Lewis quote.

I’ll start with charity. It’s very easy to assume that if someone behaves in a way that you don’t understand that this means they’re weak, stupid or cowardly. I personally don’t pay much attention to content warnings on books, films, video games, or anything else. I’ve played Cards Against Humanity stone cold sober. I’m pretty much immune to gore. And I’ve watched enough shit alternative comedy and read enough grimdark fantasy to find people trying to shock me intensely dull. But none of this makes me a more adventurous, more open-minded or more discerning reader than someone who might be legitimately bothered by any of these things. It would be very easy for me to pretend the reason I’m comfortable reading about things that other people are not comfortable reading about is because I am somehow stronger or more emotionally mature than they are, but this is quite simply not my call to make.

Glitterland comes with a bucketload of content warnings (depression, self-harm, suicide, suicidal ideation) and while obviously they aren’t necessary for me because I wrote the damn book, it would be borderline hubristic of me to insist that they be removed because I didn’t like the idea of readers making an informed decision about my book on the basis of that information. Nor do I have any kind of right to assume that a person who decides not to read my book because of the content warnings is doing so because they’re too weak and cowardly to stray outside their comfort zone.

Amelia Gormley argues that content warnings are disrespectful because they pre-suppose that readers are:

delicate, fragile, easily-bruised flowers who might be alarmed by encountering something that has been nebulously dubbed “objectionable” for reasons which are largely arbitrary and prone to change with the social and political climate.

This is approximately equivalent to assuming that including lists of ingredients on food involves treating consumers as whiny, fussy, picky eaters. There are many good reasons you might want to know what’s inside something you’re purchasing, especially if you’re vegan or allergic to peanuts. Surely, the basis of a free market, the basis of adult life and, indeed, the basis of all professional relationships is clear communication and informed choices. Ms Gormley seems to believe that readers somehow have to be tricked into reading challenging literature, that if you make the mistake of telling people in advance that your books contains controversial content they will be too pathetic to try and read them, no matter how horizon-broadening they might be. I can’t quite see how this is more respectful than the alternative.

To lift the curtain for a moment, I should probably mention that the process of putting content warnings on books (and Riptide does use content warnings, although on the website rather than on the paper copies, not that more than twenty people have ever seen one of my books in print) involves filling out a short form that can be completed in approximately seven minutes. Again, I should probably point out that I’m a very small author, with a very small readership, but I consider seven minutes work to be worth doing even if only one potential reader ever finds it useful. The alternative involves mildly, or perhaps severely, upsetting another human being for no benefit to me or anybody else.

Being triggered is not fun, and many people like to avoid it. I am not so delusionally vain as to believe that my work possesses such merit that I would recommend a person read it, even knowing it would cause them extreme emotional distress, nor can I convince myself that a reader who makes that choice is doing out so on the basis of  some politically correct whim. I am certainly not so convinced of my own genius that I believe giving readers access to factual information about the contents of my books could possibly be doing them a disservice.

Some years ago, a British vicar was pilloried in the press for daring to say in church that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. We, as a culture, habitually lie to children. Giving people access to information and allowing them to make their own decisions is the exact opposite of infantalisation.

The second point made in the blog post is that content warnings come from fandom and that they are, therefore, a marker of amateur publishing, and this is where the CS Lewis quote comes in, the quote being:

When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

I think might paraphrase this as follows: When I became a professionally published author, I put aside amateurish conceits, including the fear of looking amateurish and the desire to be very professional. I have, I will admit, always had something of an ambivalent relationship with professionalism. One of the things I am often reminded of in my study of seventeenth century swordsmanship is that it wasn’t very long ago that professional was an insult meaning, roughly speaking, “a person so ungentlemanly that they are obliged to do something for reasons as vulgar as money.” In my actual life in the twenty first century, it has usually been my experience that professionalism is the first refuge of the unprofessional: it’s the word your boss uses to try and make you do something that isn’t your job, or to persuade you to put up with inappropriate treatment. It’s the word pretentious undergraduates use to describe their terrible productions of As You Like It.

I think Ms Gormley’s concern is that content warnings are similar to fanfic (which is not professionally produced) and that therefore the use of content warnings is itself unprofessional. This strikes me as superstitious thinking. A professional is nothing more or less than a person who makes money at something, and part of the way you make money in an industry is by communicating clearly with your market. It is certainly true that Stephen King and Anne Rice did not put content warnings on their books. Stephen King and Anne Rice, when they were first published, also did not have websites. They certainly weren’t on Twitter. Times change, and an important feature of professional persons and professional organisations is adopting best practices, wherever those practices come from. A great many media do, in fact, come with some form of attached content information, the most obvious here being films which have a very clearly delineated set of ratings.

Indeed, pulling four random DVDs off my shelf, I would note that Troy contains “strong battle violence” and is “suitable only for persons 15 years and over”, LA Confidential contains “strong language and violence”, and is “suitable only for persons 18 years and over”, Princess Mononoke contains “infrequent mild language”, “some mild references” to sex and nudity, “frequent mild fantasy” violence, no problematic themes or content and “some scenes which may be unsuitable for young children” and An Education contains “moderate sex references” and is “not be supplied to any person below the age of 12”.

This clearly does not make the DVD industry a shoddy, amateurish affair, nor is film any less designed to “shake you up, to make you think, to push boundaries. In other words, to open up the world for the proliferation of IDEAS” than the novel. A book is a book is a book and whether it is good or not, or bad or not, or shakes you up, or makes you think or pushes boundaries or opens up the world for the proliferation of ideas or not, is a factor of its content, not of what you put on the cover.

Whenever a convention arises that is to the benefit of some people and no harm whatsoever to others, there are always cries of protest, and they are always completely unfounded. It is a simple matter of Pareto optimality: if you can do something that will make some people better off, and nobody worse off, you should do it, always. Content warnings are trivial to implement, easily ignored and genuinely important to some readers. I, personally, am lucky enough to be able to read a rape scene without experiencing traumatic flashbacks, but I know a great many people who are not. It is the bare minimum of common courtesy to give people enough information to make an informed decision about whether they want to read a book.

musing

59 Responses to on content warnings & courtesy

  1. ReaderWithASignedCopy says:

    One thing I often see these discussions sliding into is an assumption that providing a content advisory is the start of the slippery slope to full-on content restriction and censorship.

    This isn’t complete lunacy. You had the PMRC debacle in the US which eventually led to the “PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT LYRICS” bits you see on album covers, and which was fairly clearly driven by a moral panic and a censorious instinct.

    At the same time, it’s tenuous to the extreme to suggest that there is no reason or utility to content advisories aside from making it easier for people to censor stuff. And if you want to stand against censorship, you stand against a) people actually censoring stuff and b) people implementing content advisories in a way which has more to do with censorship (“Warning: contains dangerously unpatriotic thought”) than any of the other reasons you would provide an advisory. You don’t smash up a tool just because someone might use it to make a gun.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I understand that there are some issues with third party sites (Amazon, in particular) which mean that ANY content warnings on books (especially m/m books) tends to lead to them getting taken off the system – which is obviously kind of problematic.

      On the other hand, this is a different issue, I think – and necessarily needs to be discussed separately from the reader-focused side of content warnings, especially because censorship is one of those words that inherently makes people emotional – and a reader wanting information about a book that may lead them to choose not to purchase it … isn’t censoring it. Nor is the book itself being censored.

  2. willaful says:

    I would never have thought I needed content warnings, but I recently read a book that unexpectedly involved a random public shooting and when I told people that book undid a year of therapy, I was only exaggerating. It severely negatively impacted my overall impression of the book too, which is something I think most authors would be willing to take seven minutes to avoid…

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Well, I suppose if you literally only cared about the sale, and not the reaction, maybe not… but that strikes me as profoundly self-defeating, as well as just plain mean.

      I honestly don’t see any disadvantage to content warnings at all, as an author or a reader. I like content warnings as a reader because – whether I feel like I need them or not – I like to know what I’m getting, and I like to feel like an informed consumer. And as an author … I don’t see any reason at all not to ruin someone’s day unnecessarily.

      • willaful says:

        I can see an argument against spoilers… this is somewhat easier for a reviewer, because we generally have some sort of spoiler option, though even then phrasing it just right, so that the people who need to know will look, can be tricky.

        But a simple “contains violence that could be upsetting” would probably do the trick.

        • Alexis Hall says:

          Heh, spoilers – another deeply controversial subject 😉

          I actually don’t mind spoilers myself but, again, I always plaster spoiler warnings everywhere because I’m aware that they can negatively impact someone’s reading experience.

  3. Michele Mills says:

    I hate the idea that readers who look for content warnings are somehow weak and fragile. I have two close friends who write inspirational romance. They are smart, classy ladies who happen to enjoy their reading to be aligned with their values. I can respect that. I happen to enjoy reading/writing edgy material that would cause them to blush-nothing wrong with that either. Content warnings just make sense. Why allow a reader to accidentally buy a book that will be upsetting to him/her? We need to look out for the consumer. 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I agree – well, obviously, I just babbled on about it for ages 🙂 I mean there’s the personal choice / informed consumer argument, which is completely valid, and there’s also the fact being triggered is a genuinely traumatic experience. And the notion that preferring to avoid it makes you weak or cowardly or hidebound is … troubling to me, to say to the least.

  4. uneventension says:

    Content warnings are a sore tooth for many authors in the m/m community – or so it seems, given that I’ve read many blog posts about it in the last few years. I decided to come out of lurkedoom to reply to your entry because many things you’ve written resonate with what I feel (and, btw, I follow your blog because I’ve loved Glitterland. Thank you for this wonderful book!).

    Some authors seem to think that content warnings are “scaring away” potential readers – obviously I can only speak for myself, but I want to assure them that they are not – at least in my case. Were I to buy a book that covers themes I usually avoid, I would feel disappointed and maybe (it depends on the theme) even angry with the writer (angry as a reaction, or as a consequence, of being ‘ambushed’ with feelings and emotions I really don’t want to feel) – better knowing right off the bat that some books are simply not for me. I won’t attach, more or less consciously, negative feelings to that particularly author’s name (in my case, because I’ve no internet presence whatsoever, it wouldn’t change a thing for the hypothetical writer – that’s not always the case, though). I don’t enjoy feeling miserable, maybe even for days, after having spent hours (and money) on a book – feeling introspective, yes, feeling miserable, not. Does it make me fragile? Or oversensitive? Does anybody have the right to judge me weak for it, even when they don’t know anything about me? Does it even matter if they do, anyway? I think the answers are easily guessed (and, btw, it doesn’t matter how famous you are/how many copies your book has sold. That’s how I – maybe many of us? – always feel).

    I get it, living/trying to live on a writing career is hard and the impression that the pool of potential buyers shrinks must be maddening – but sometimes this shrinking is just in the mind of an author who – however understandably – overthinks it. I do feel loyalty (this expression makes me smile) towards authors whose books I love and yes, I’m more ready to ‘branch out’ when some sensitive-for-me themes are handled by them – nevertheless, I still like to be prepared in order to make (as you’ve written) *an informed decision* – something that I try to do in every field of my life… so what’s strange in wanting to do so for one of my favorite pastime, I wonder?

    Just my 2 (confused) cents.

    aga

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you for the de-lurking, and the kind words about Glitterland 🙂 I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed it.

      To be honest, I hadn’t realised content warnings were a point of contention. I only realised they *could* be when I read the blog post – I’d always taken it as read that they were A Good Thing. But then, I suppose I’ve always moved in circles where they’re taken for granted.

      I honestly can’t really get my head around the idea of content warnings scaring readers away – unless it is literally one extra sale you care about, rather than the wider context of reader awareness and satisfaction. And actually I don’t think anyone would really feel that way. It would be short-sighted and self-defeating. Admittedly I’m speaking personally and anecdotally here, but I would agree with you that while some people will use content warnings to help them decide not to buy a certain book, others simply use them to avoid emotional ambushes.

      Personally, I’m far more likely to read something that’s … likely to nudge me out of my comfort zone or challenge my boundaries or any of this stuff, if I’ve been pre-prepared to deal with it. And I don’t get that shocked/hurt/angry reaction you describe when I feel the text has sort of left me vulnerable to something I might not have been ready for.

      And it doesn’t sound like your cents are confused at all 🙂 Sounds like your cents are pretty comfortable with their choices 🙂

  5. Thanks for reading my post, Alexis, and making such a thoughtful post about your own take on the subject. I think this is an important discussion, one that our community really needs to have, and I like that people are talking about it. I think, more than anything, that is what I wanted when I made my post.

    Again, I want to reiterate what I’ve said on my post, in comments to people who replied to my post, and elsewhere, that I’m not against content warnings that are used for the purpose of providing those who cannot or do not want to be exposed to certain material the necessary tools to make an informed choice. The warnings and tags on Riptides website? I have no issue with those. In fact, Heidi Belleau recently on Twitter made a suggestion of having a link to the Riptide warnings page in the ebook, which hopefully would enable people to access those tools without triggering Amazon to remove the book. As long as that is the case (that Amazon won’t take the book down) I would fully support such a notion. I even made a post myself detailing issues that people should watch out for in Strain. I WANT readers to have those tools. I also believe that the readers who need or desire those tools are mature, intelligent, capable individuals willing to do their own due diligence and filter their own selections according to their needs and preferences.

    That’s not what I was discussing in my post, however. It’s actually a manifold issue, but of all the aspects, here’s the one that problems me most..

    I’ve seen incidents over the last couple years of some people with a specific personal agenda will USE THE EXCUSE of “other” readers being sensitive to demand labels which just oh so conveniently ghettoize or stigmatize material which they just don’t like. I’ll give you a couple examples of this behavior.

    1) back during the “warn readers about m/f content” misogynist and gynophobic debacle, one reader went to far as to claim that seeing female anatomy on page or male-bodied/female-bodied sex on page might be “triggering” and therefore should be warned again. In other words, this reader doesn’t want girl parts in their m/m porn and therefore has co-opted the excuse of post-traumatic triggers to try to get it filtered out (which, personally, if I were a person with post-traumatic triggers, yes, I would find this very insulting on a number of levels.)

    2) another reader–who is actually an author using a sockpuppet and known for lambasting books in their own genre in cases where such things are clearly a conflict of interest–posted a review which contained flat-out incorrect information about the content of a book (I know it was incorrect, because I read the book in question.) Several other people who openly admited they hadn’t even read the book (the most vocal of whom is ALSO known to use sockpuppets and stir things up where there is a conflict of interest, and also for trying to self-appoint themselves the ultimate authority on certain pet subjects to the point of bludgeoning anyone else who has a differing opinion on those subjects) then began promulgating this incorrect and misleading information and demanding there should haven been warning labels plastered all over the book for content the book didn’t even actually possess.

    3) and then, this week, when an author dared to recommend a book, they were taken to task for having the audacity to use the spotlight provided to them as an author to recommend a book with content that others might find objectionable. So not only are people demanding labels to suit their own biases and agendas, they are trying to suppress the voices of other readers on the basis of those same biases and agendas.

    This is my biggest issue with labeling. Who is doing the labeling, and why? If it is well-meaning authors and publishers trying to provide people who truly need and want them with the necessary tools to find the content they wish to read and avoid the content they don’t? Excellent. I have no issue with that. HOWEVER, I think it’s clear that it is a system which can be misused, and I already see people trying to misuse it. So how do we guard against that?

    I don’t know if I got lost in hyperbole making that post and therefore this specific point, which is the one I really wanted to hammer home, is easy to overlook, or what. But that’s the issue I really want to open a dialogue about.

    Thanks again for such a thoughtful post on the subject!

    • Amelia,

      re your first example: forgot to mention it on your blog, where you mentioned you couldn’t remember the origin of the dust-up, but it was a jessewave post that started that one. she objected to girl cooties in her mm and refused to review books that had even incidental XX sexorz in it.

      • Hey Julio. What I am referencing is a specific comment someone made somewhere on one of the MANY blog posts that were spawned by the Jessewave debacle. I just can’t remember where that precise comment happened, but I literally stared at my screen in disbelief.

        I’m glad this has resulted in such a lively discussion. I admit, I was hot under the collar when I made the post on behalf of the author being told not to recommend books because of his status as an author, but it was a subject I had been turning over in my head for days. It’s not the first time I’ve been in dust-ups over content warnings. I guess I’ve just encountered more people trying to misuse such tools in order to effectively censor content they don’t personally approve of than everyone else has, because the moment the subject comes up, incidences where such things have happened are what come to me and I immediately go on alert.

        Dating back nearly 20 years, in some of the first internet fiction and fanfiction communities to ever exist, back before things like triggers were understood or commonly referenced, I’ve seen this exact issue come up again and again. And always the people most vocal about demanding some way to ghettoize, blacklist, or ban content have been the ones with conflicts of interest and personal axes to grind. I think perhaps on this issue I focus on these people because I have such a long history with them and quite frankly find them dangerous to free expression.

        Now, however, we have a mixture of those people as well as people with legitimate concerns about providing readers with the tools they need to self-select the content they want or don’t want, and somehow we have to find a way to accommodate the latter while not providing the former with any foothold or appearance of legitimacy. Definitely a tough nut to crack.

    • Karen says:

      I was gong to respond to this post when I first read it, and now I’m really glad I waited. When I read AG’s original post I kind of got what she meant, but I think that the passion overtook her point a little. AJH’ your response balanced the passion and has thoughtfully tackled the subject, The concept of labeling( up to a point )is one worthy of further debate, and its really great to see you both starting that dialogue. Well done.

      • Alexis Hall says:

        Thanks Karen 🙂

        As I said to Amelia I think there are a lot of issues tangled up in this one, and being conflated in ways that might not be helpful 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you your comment, and for writing the post 🙂

      It seems to me your response here that we’re basically on the same wavelength. I may have read some things into your post you didn’t intend. I agree it’s a complex issue, and I think some things are unhelpfully being conflated in discussions of it. The fact that Amazon uses content warnings to target specific material is not intrinsically a problem with content warnings. Similarly, I think it would be impossible to design a system so robust that it would prevent people from actively lying about the contents of a book.

      I suppose there’s sort of a grey area here because different things will read differently to different people – something that reads perfectly straight forwardly to one person may read as dubcon to someone else, and then noncon to someone else again. And, by the same token, I think m/f is a really tricky one, because inherently one feels it shouldn’t be something that requires a warning. I do think I remember the post you’re referencing there, and I can see why a lot of people had a problem with it. On the other hand, I don’t feel it’s my place to police what other people are, and are not, allowed to find triggering. I can, for example, I can imagine a situation in which a reader who had suffered abuse, or had otherwise negative experiences with heterosexual sex, could choose to seek out m/m in order not to have to deal with that.

      Similarly, I agree that it seems suspicious when people claim that things are problematic on behalf of third parties but, again, I think you have to be quite careful because very often these people are being completely sincere. I’m a cisgendered white man, but I quite often flag up things that strike me as racist, sexist or transphobic. Very often, the people most directly affected by something are the ones least in a position to talk about it.

      As for recommendations, I personally do make an effort to tell people when something I’m recommending contains content I think might be triggering, problematic or, even, that I know some people just plain don’t like. On the other hand, I am entirely aware how easy it is to start a witch hunt on Twitter.

      Like you say, it’s a tricky one. I think we probably have to recognise is that you can’t have a system in which people on the internet won’t say things you disagree with. People will criticise books for all sorts of reasons that some people will think are invalid. If it’s not content warnings, it’ll be something else.

      I think the only solution I can see is to trust that people will naturally gravitate towards the sources they find most reliable. If reviewer [x] commonly makes claims about books which are provably false, I doubt people will take reviewer [x] seriously for very long.

  6. julio says:

    i object to spoilery content warnings. vague yet still useful warnings like ‘graphic violence’ are fine.

    but if i know a rape is coming in advance, i won’t read the book.

    it ceases to be an effective dramatic development, and becomes instead just this unpleasant thing i know is coming the entire way through the book.

    but that’s not what anyone’s talking about here; i agree with your post wholeheartedly.

    it’s remarkably well-argued. i’m reblogging this.

    • That’s why I really like “opt-in” comment warnings, like the ones Riptide has on its sight that you can toggle on and off. If you don’t want/need warnings you can “choose not to warn” and preserve that experience, if you want advance warning or to fully avoid a given subject, you can do that, too.

      I’m 100% in favour of content warnings, both as a creative professional and as a consumer.

      I sure do wish Amazon would let us actually effing use warnings though because goddamn.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you, Julio 🙂

      I can see an potentially overlapping space between content warnings and spoilers but, as you say, they’re also slightly different issues.

      I confess, I personally like to know if there’s rape, or eroticised noncon (and possibly even dubcon) on my horizon – since I’d rather it didn’t it jump out at me when I wasn’t ready.

      I guess the way we interact with art (texts) is changing quite fundamentally with digital distribution & etc. I mean there’s more choice, and a greater emphasis on choice, and informed choices. But that could be a whole other post.

  7. Kaetrin says:

    YES. To all of it.

    I don’t think that being vulnerable to certain tropes makes someone inherently fragile. But even if it does, don’t we as a society, have an obligation to care for the fragile and vulnerable?

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think some people might have difficulty identifying as ‘fragile’ or that preferences are a consequence of fragility, but I would certainly agree that decent people have an obligation not to upset other people unnecessarily.

  8. KJ Charles says:

    As ever, context is a huge part of an informed decision. A Stephen King title in the 1980s wouldn’t have needed a content warning, or rather, it did have one, and that was the big ‘Stephen King’ on the front, next to the picture of a blood-covered girl.

    Whereas, there is so much erotica out there that covers stuff many of us don’t find remotely erotic, and it’s really not possible to clue the reader into that via the cover alone. If your romance’s content falls outside the boundaries of a basic HQN, it’s only reasonable to allow the reader to form accurate expectations.

  9. Karen says:

    Having worked professionally with people who have been battered, abused, raped, amongst other nasty things, for a long time, I can categorically say that warnings are necessary. There is nothing worse than a survivor of rape, for example, stumbling across a rape scene in a book that did not mention it anywhere – it is jarring at the very mild end of the scale, to potentially harmful emotionally (or more) towards the higher end of the scale. I believe in warnings. Anyone suggesting people are weak for needing warnings is ill advised and ignorant. It is akin to telling someone with depression to ‘snap out if it’ because they do not understand how insidious depression is. They can’t empathise. Unacceptable. Some books official blurbs/covers/lack of warnings do not make the book seem anything like the material contained within. I could say so much more, but I’ll leave it as is.

    Thank you for your well thought out, intelligent post.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you for reading – and for the comment. Needless to say, I agree. Triggering can be absolutely horrific, and given how easy content warnings are to implement, I can’t see any reason for authors and publishers not to use them.

      I think the notion of there being moral virtue in toughing something out or moral superiority in being lucky enough to be able to read and interact without these sort of concerns is pretty widespread… and, to my mind, all the more reason to use things like content warnings.

      I kind of don’t think people should have to argue for the right to make informed decisions about their reading – it is perfectly okay for anyone to choose NOT to read a book, for any reason (even if it’s my book).

  10. Allie says:

    On Glitterland, you forgot to put the advisory “May cause readers to miss the aeroplane” –
    http://boysinourbooks.com/2014/04/11/question-of-the-week-10-gimme-moar/

    For an author I do know, I find I pretty much don’t need content warnings – either I like the way they write and the way they would approach “difficult” content or I don’t (fortunately, no triggering stuff for me to worry about). For an author I don’t know, content warnings act as an add-on to the blurb and the extract. Which leads me to think that a good blurb could do the work of the content warning? So perhaps a content warning is either an easy way round including that information in a well-written blurb, or it ensures that a potential reader doesn’t have to rely on critical reading skills to determine content? Which is a complicated way of saying “content warnings make life easier for everyone”.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Well, at least that’s only inconvenient, not deeply traumatic 😉

      And yes – to me, while there are other elements to this debate (for example problems with content warnings and third party sites) the central point is, as you say, content warnings make life easier for everyone. I mean, yes, you can get information from sample chapters, covers and blurbs but why put readers (consumers) to so much effort when it’s perfectly reasonable to want to filter your filter for any reason at all – I mean my personal preference is no rape please, and I’d rather be able to do that efficiently, but the fact I can be fairly relaxed about it is, well, the privilege of privilege.

  11. sofia says:

    Great post Alexis. When I was younger, I proudly believed that I was able to handle any incoming data whatsoever and that I would be stronger for it and that my psyche, my faith, my mind, my heart was able to handle everything. I am not so foolish any longer, I need to be nurtured and fed good food. We do it with pets and loved ones, we offer them good stuff, why shouldn’t we do it with ourselves. So I do filter my incoming data, I filter for boredom,for triggers, I limit depressing stuff, I filter a lot. If we are what we eat, read, see, experience etc and we realise this, why should we give up control to what comes in to others.

  12. PeggyL says:

    Although I tolerate the existence of content warnings, I do find them redundant — I always read reviews *before* a purchase. Strangely, this only applies to romance; I’m just compelled to learn what others thought (at least about the plot) before I decide to read a book. Other genres I’m willing to just read the blurb. The irony is, with romance I’m guaranteed an HEA. I honestly can’t explain this strange behaviour of mine.

    On professionalism: Unless there is a governing body dictating what can or cannot be done, I think individuals have their own interpretation/definition of this term, thus expectations vary. Of course, tolerance levels vary, too. And, things get more delicate/complicated in this age of political correctness.

  13. Vanessa says:

    Wonderful post, Alexis. I have a fairly complicated set of feelings when it comes to content warnings, both as a writer and a reader.

    My stance as a writer is informed by my experiences as a reader: I am in favor of warning for possibly triggering subjects, including but not limited to graphic violence, dubious or non-consent, suicide ideation, and eating disorders. I am in favor of appropriate heat ratings. I am not in favor of “warning” for gay/lesbian sex in any book, regardless of whether it is marketed as heterosexual fiction or gay fiction. I am not in favor of “warning” for heterosexual sex in gay fiction.

    What do content warnings do for an author? Perhaps the best illustration of this is an anecdote:

    Last year, I was buddy-reading a heterosexual romance by an author I had read, loved, and recommended many times in the past. About halfway into the book, I was blindsided by a rape scene. I was not triggered, but I was very upset. I made a status update for my buddy-reader in Goodreads that I wasn’t finishing the book, and I set it aside.

    What happened next triggered me.
    The author subtweeted aggressively about my status update on Goodreads. Other authors contacted me to tell me I had read the scene wrong. They told me I was damaging the author, that I should erase my status update, and when I did not, they made veiled threats to my career if I did not stop using Goodreads altogether. Blaming. Shaming. Silencing. Threatening. This is a near-universal experience for victims of rape. And to be subjected to it again simply for not finishing a book BECAUSE of a rape scene?

    Had the book warned for dubious consent or rape, I likely would still have read it. I would have been able to prepare myself to read it, and while I may have found it upsetting, I could have skimmed it–I probably would not have found it necessary to set the book aside.

    An appropriate warning would have prevented the entire situation, instead the author lost a reader who had been a fan for years.

    So yes, as an author, I believe content warnings are a healthy part of the book buying process. I think they serve an important purpose for readers like myself who can be triggered.

    They are a good-faith gesture–the reader is more valuable than a single sale.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you – I think it has the potential to be quite a complicated issue, at least some of the broader questions. But, for me, the central question (are content warnings good/necessary) is pretty simple, and the answer is yes 🙂

      I’m really sorry to hear about your experiences with that book, and the author – that’s a double whammie of unfortunateness. Ambushing readers with content is non-ideal but nevertheless probably sometimes happens, even if authors and publishers have the best of intentions. But then to attack you over your reaction – ouch. That’s so deeply wrong, I can’t even.

      It kind of feeds into my certainty that content warnings for the types of content you mention are absolutely necessary – because it undercuts the idea that having negative reactions to reading it is somehow the reader’s fault, and a sign of weakness/selfishness/cowardliness. Readers shouldn’t be having to defend their reactions and experiences.

      On a slightly more controversial note, warnings for orientation are kind of a political mind-field. In principle, I think it’s agree that it’s not okay to lump being gay (or straight for that matter) in with rape and violence. On the other hand, I try to scrupulously remind myself that it’s not my job to judge what other people can and can’t find triggering. My instinct is to assume that people who, for example, would recoil from reading about two men, or two women, or whatever, are being if not bigoted then at least narrow-minded. But I am deeply uncomfortable making a blanket assertion that there are things it is not legitimate to be upset by – as I was saying above, I can imagine situation in which someone was triggered by m/f on account of abuse or other negative experiences.

      I think part of this reason this is difficult to discuss is that, the last time it was raised, it was done in a very problematic way. To my mind, there’s a huge difference between “I, as an individual reader, would prefer to know what pairings to expect” and “m/m books should not contain vaginas.”

      Ultimately, I’m in favour of readers being able to access as much information as possible about the books they choose to spend their time and money on. But, I think you’re right that describing something as a “a warning” is a stigma that you don’t want to associate with people’s sexualities.

      • willaful says:

        Someone on twitter — Liz Mc2 I think — pointed out that calling them “warnings” is a problem in itself. The information is useful in a variety of ways — including to help people find what they like — and it would be helpful to call it by a less value laden term.

  14. Tami Veldura says:

    I’ve always found content warnings to be useful, but not for the reasons cited above.

    Like you, Alexis, I haven’t experienced anything that can be triggered. I’ve had a perfectly lovely suburban upper-middle class lifestyle with a perfectly functional family. I’ve always used content warnings as a filtering system, not to avoid certain stories, but to specifically find them.

    If I’m in the mood for something tooth-rottingly sweet I can filter out all the warnings. If I’m in the mood for a violent dub/noncon mindfuckery, I can filter for that too.

    However, I have a friend on the other end of the spectrum. A fly being swatted can make her tear up, she needs to know how any story/game/movie ends before she starts it because it’s likely it won’t be friendly, content warnings are a lifesaver for her.

    But to Amelia’s point about abuse, I think it’s a very grey area. On the one hand, no one has the ability to declare what can or cannot be triggering for something else. On the other, how do you call out overt bigotry without stepping over that line?

    I think part of an answer is being able to separate degrading behavior from the message being sent- and this is required both of the message and who receives that message.

    “I don’t want to read m/f in my m/m. Don’t recommend these books to me.” Isn’t a misogynistic statement.

    “m/f shouldn’t be in m/m stories. Don’t recommend these books to me.” Is more of a problem.

    And I think often, the misogyny/opression itself triggers a lot of people- both those oppressed and those trying their damndest to be good allies. That second statement starts a witch hunt rather than opens a dialogue with the messenger to find out if they’re even aware how awful their statement is. If they actually meant option one and just articulated poorly. Or if they really are that close-minded, that they’d rather see no m/f in any m/m book ever than simply make an effort to avoid it of their own accord.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think there are lots of arguments in favour of content warnings – or content … err … information as Willa suggested might be a less laden term. I’m absolutely in favour of not randomly triggering people, but I’m also in favour in people being able to just find the sort of material they want to read.

      I agree there are grey areas there, and one does come up against the whole “ahhh but where do you draw the line, ahhh” question – but I ultimately think these are secondary to the central point that content warnings (content information) can stop you unnecessarily wrecking someone’s day. But that there are tangential issues surrounding the use of content warnings, isn’t in itself an argument against using them – if that makes sense 🙂

      And you’re right very right that there’s a world of difference between personal preference (for whatever reason) and blanket declarations about m/m (or any genre) should and shouldn’t do, and should and shouldn’t contain (e.g. vaginas). I’m just uncomfortable automatically assuming that preferences against m/f (or whatever) are inherently bigoted.

  15. Olivia Waite says:

    Great points on the shifting meaning of the term ‘professional.’ I noticed that Amelia Gormley’s post also seems to draw a causal connection between “includes content that some would rather avoid” and “authorial success.” V.C. Andrews, Stephen King, and Anne Rice wrote ‘edgy’ work, therefore they’ve been successful. It ignores the popularity of less edgy books and assumes that the authors named don’t have other skills besides gore/violence/incest to draw readers in. This might explain why Amelia Gormley objects so strongly to content warnings: she sees them as a barrier to vast commercial popularity.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you 🙂

      I think the original post was quite complicated, and had a lot of ideas in it. While I can see where you’re coming from, I didn’t quite interpret it that way, but – from Amelia’s comment above – there’s clearly a wider context to this post that I’m missing.

      Obviously I don’t want to speak for Amelia but my reading of that part of the post wasn’t that it suggested that King, Rice, Andrews et al. were only popular because their books contained gore, incest, and the like, but, possibly, that she feels that they would have been less successful had their books been required to carry warnings on the cover.

      I suppose to an extent, you can see it as a little bit like cigarette packaging. If you make people give up space that they could use for branding and make them use it for the equivalent of a government health warning, you could see how that might affect sales.

      And now I think I’m responding to my interpretation of your interpretation of Amelia’s interpretation of a broad and complex topic … but I don’t think I agree with … uh … whatever it was I was saying that I’d interpreted.

      I suppose, from a sales point of view, the thing that really matters is the way content warnings are used by Amazon. Obviously we can’t know if King’s books would have sold as well if they’d had content warnings on the spines, but I think we can be pretty sure they wouldn’t have sold as well if people refused to stock them in bookshops. In modern marketplace, not being on Amazon is kind of the equivalent of not being in Waterstones.

  16. Aija says:

    YES. Thank you!

    I read whatever comes my way (only too much sappiness and badly written books squick me out), but I really appreciate the content warning if only because I feel respected as a customer. Plus, they allow me to get in the right mood from the first page on.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I’m not sure you get content warnings for poor writing 😉

      Warning: contains some scenes of homosexual sex and poor use of the past participle.

      • Aija says:

        LOL! But seriously, books containing lots and lots of unintentionally ridiculous phrases like “galloping abs” and “my subconscious screamed at me metaphorically” (yes, I’ve memorized that) should come with a red warning. It screws with your brain like nothing else 😀
        Usually the 1, 2, 3-star reviews point out to all that is wrong with the book, but then again – I might skip a lot of amazing books simply because a lot of people didn’t like it. *sigh*

        • Alexis Hall says:

          My subconscious screamed at me metaphorically HAS to be 50 Shades, right? It sounds like something Anastacia Steel’s subconscious would do to her metaphorically.

          Also … galloping abs?! Well, that’s … lovely … I assume they’re flying over the open plains, with their manes and tails flying … whut?

  17. Love this post! It’s funny, when I read the original post you’re talking about, that XKCD comic was the FIRST thing to come to mind as well. When it comes down to it, I find content warnings helpful because not only do they help readers who might want to avoid reading a certain content, they also help readers who do want to read about certain content find what they’re looking for. So imo, it doesn’t drive readers away, but rather helps acquire more satisfied readers, which is really what most authors are looking for in the first place.
    As for the discussion about whether or not m/f sex should be warned about in m/m romance… eh, on that I’m not entirely sure. I definitely think there’s a difference between graphic triggering content and just content, but then, who am I to say what someone should or shouldn’t be triggered by? Plenty of trans* people (myself included) can have different levels of discomfort reading about certain genitalia, and rightly want to avoid it. But sex scenes are usually something that are predicted in the text, and can subsequently be skimmed or avoided, whereas things like extreme gore or self-harm can be completely out of nowhere and, I think, should be warned about.
    Also, I just have to say, I love your comments about professionalism. I’m someone who hides behind professionalism a lot because I’m not entirely confident in my work, and I’ve always admired people who create amazing work, but also don’t take themselves too seriously. I hope that one day I’ll be at that point.
    Thanks again for the post!

    • Kaetrin says:

      It might be helpful if we started to call them “content notes” or some other non-stigmatising name. They’re not necessarily warnings – they’re consumer information. Some will be warned away, some will be warned and be prepared and keep reading, some will think “that’s exactly what I was looking for; yay!”. “Warning” has a “this is bad, beware” connotation and many things people would like to know are better classified as information.

      My own trigger is unique and not something I’m ever going to be warned about (which is fine) so I can’t speak from authority, but it occurs to me that those who would be trigged, wouldn’t be bothered whether it was described as “notes” or “information” so long as the substance was present.

      • Alexis Hall says:

        Yes, Willa mentioned it was suggested on Twitter – content guidance or whatever would be fine, arguably better because it doesn’t carry any value judgement, and wouldn’t lump things like “same sex sex” with “extreme violence!”

        But, yes, I don’t think anybody particularly minds what it’s called, or what form it takes, as long as the information is there.

        Also *hugs* for you 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Pleasure – thank you for the comment 🙂

      I think there’s lots of utility and general goodness in content warnings (or content information as someone suggested might be terminology) for all sorts of readers. And, as you say, while I absolutely don’t want to trigger someone because awful, I’d also be entirely in favour of readers being comfortable with what they’re getting. And if content [x] makes reader [y] decide not to buy, I’d rather that than reader [y] being stuck with something they didn’t want tor expect.

      Regarding m/f versus graphic content … I think a large part of the problem, as people have suggested above, is the language. While we shouldn’t get to make judgement what’s a legitimate trigger and what isn’t, if feels inherently problematic to be “warning” readers about orientation, hence perhaps content warning or content guidance.

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  19. Memel says:

    I think one element here is that an ebook, many times, is bought on faith. I recently wiffled through a physical book in the bookstore, and about 50 pages from the end, I encountered one of my personal avoidances–ménage. Nothing on the cover, back cover copy, front blurb, etc. revealed that to me. It was just the luxury of perusing a physical copy that allowed me to find that and avoid purchasing that particular book.

    With an ebook, that simply doesn’t exist. I read a short blurb at the publisher/seller, maybe a couple of reviews (which may or may not cite anything about the contents of the book), and make a decision to purchase. In the example I mention above, if that was an ebook and I had even taken the step of downloading a sample, I wouldn’t have known the content was there since it occurred at the end of the book.

    In another instance, a physical book I read featured a detailed ménage scene in the middle even though the same situation occurred–nothing on the cover, back cover, etc. And for me, the book hit the proverbial wall and was a DNF. And I wondered if I had missed anything: did perhaps the author’s website mention this? I went and checked and nope, not a word about it on the page for that book. I now don’t even look at anything that author writes, although she has a very good rep amongst readers. Simply put, I feel I can’t trust her.

    And honestly, book purchasing shouldn’t be this exhausting. I shouldn’t have to delve into detailed research for each and every purchase to avoid what I choose to avoid as the customer of the product. So I find content statements (a much better term than the slightly pejorative “warning”) to be truly valuable things.

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